This news story about the Catholic Church and indulgences is a old now, but I have meant for a while to comment on it. Here is how the New York Times described the doctrine:
This involves esoteric and highly specific details about the afterlife, along with a prescription for how to influence this outcome through specific actions--naturally, mediated through the institution of the Catholic Church.
According to church teaching, even after sinners are absolved in the confessional and say their Our Fathers or Hail Marys as penance, they still face punishment after death, in Purgatory, before they can enter heaven. In exchange for certain prayers, devotions or pilgrimages in special years, a Catholic can receive an indulgence, which reduces or erases that punishment instantly, with no formal ceremony or sacrament.There are partial indulgences, which reduce purgatorial time by a certain number of days or years, and plenary indulgences, which eliminate all of it, until another sin is committed. You can get one for yourself, or for someone who is dead. You cannot buy one — the church outlawed the sale of indulgences in 1567 — but charitable contributions, combined with other acts, can help you earn one. There is a limit of one plenary indulgence per sinner per day.
This is a theology that says that certain kinds of good works or religious activity can grant you access to the HOV lane to heaven. I am an agnostic on the question of the afterlife, and I think good works should be their own reward, rather than as a way of erasing points off your permanent record, so this whole doctrine of indulgences makes no sense to me at any level. It seems to me, if anything, that it is a bit of an exercise in power tripping by a church that claims all sorts of divinely sanctioned authority for itself on matters that I think should best be left to God. But maybe that's just me.